A universe of beauty, mystery and wonder

A universe of beauty, mystery and wonder

Monday, August 17, 2015

HOW CURIOUS GEORGE ESCAPED THE NAZIS - The creators of the beloved children books' character were a Jewish couple who fled Europe and the Holocaust

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Key points:
  • Image result for curious george imagesGeorge's parents, Hans and  Margret Rey, were German Jews who barely managed to escape Hitler as the Nazi army marched into Paris.
  • During their escape the couple had two close calls, but it was George who saved their lives.
  • The authors' new life in America.
  • George becomes famous.
  • George's Jewish nature is in his character and his life story.
  • Authors also wrote other books advocating for ethnic harmony.
  • George was their only 'child'.  A very young reader once told them he was disappointed because he expected them to be monkeys too.
By Saul Jay Singer
Who were Curious George's parents?
H.a. rey.jpg
H.A. REY reading to children
in the early 1970s.

Born into a traditional Jewish family, Hans Augusto (“H.A.”) Reyersbach (1898–1977) was a self-taught artist who at a young age developed a love for animals and began sketching them at the famous Hagenbeck Zoo near his Hamburg home.
After serving in the German army during World War I, he returned to Hamburg and worked as a commercial artist, designing and lithographing circus posters.
Facing difficult economic times in Germany, however, he traveled to Brazil where, while selling goods along the Amazon River, he observed and sketched monkeys in their natural habitat. Hans later worked on decorative maps for the Brazilian Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair (1937).

Margaret Waldstein (or Margret Rey)
 with her husband H.A. Rey in 1951
Margarete Waldstein (1906-1996) was the granddaughter of a prominent Hamburg rabbi and the daughter of a Jewish member of the Reichstag, the German parliament, in the 1920s.
She studied art and photography at the renowned Bauhaus School and at the Dusseldorf Art Academy and, in the late 1920s, had a solo exhibit of her watercolors in Berlin.

Sensitive to the rapidly changing political climate and having the foresight to leave Germany as Hitler began his rise to power, she worked as a photographer in London before traveling in 1935 to Rio de Janeiro where she ran into an old family friend: Hans, who had first met her when she was ten years old and sliding down a banister.
Image result for curious george images 
The two artists began working together, founded the first advertising agency in Rio, married in August 1935, and changed the name Reyersbach to the easier to pronounce “Rey.”

After honeymooning in Paris, the couple decided to remain there and settled in Montmartre, a well-known French artists’ neighborhood, where they began writing and illustrating books for children.
As Margret later explained, “We loved monkeys…. Hans was the artist, a genius and a dreamer who loved animals. I was the midwife. I’d write the text and supervise the drawings.”
Continue reading and see more images

How was Curious George born?
The concept for Curious George began with a story about Raffy, a lonesome giraffe who befriends nine monkeys, the youngest of whom is named Fifi.
Image result for curious george images 
By 1939, having decided to narrow their tale to Fifi, the Reys were hard at work on The Adventures of Fifi and another book about a penguin named Whiteblack. As we will see, “Fifi” eventually became the Curious George we all know and love.
Curious George and parents escape the Nazis as the German army marches into Paris

Curious George may never have even seen the light of day but for the determination and courage of his creators.
"Fleeing Hitler": Leaving Paris by roads
Fleeing Hitler's advance into France
The Reys had been living in Paris for four years and, on June 14, 1940 – mere hours before the Nazis marched into Paris – they fled on bicycles (so beloved to George) carrying only some warm clothes, food, and some old drawings for their children’s stories, including one about a certain mischievous monkey.

Due to the shortage of anything on wheels, as Parisians by the thousands were fleeing the advancing German army, Hans had to assemble the escape bikes himself from spare parts.
The Reys rode their bikes for four days until they reached the border with Spain, where they sold the bikes to customs officials and used the proceeds to purchase train fare to Lisbon, from where they sailed back to Brazil. But the trip was not without its close calls.
Curious George saves his parents - twice

Not only were the Reys able to save George, but he actually saved them – twice.
First, just prior to fleeing France, they were arrested as suspected spies by the French police.
Image result for curious george images
During their interrogation, an officer came across their Curious George manuscript and, attempting to find evidence in the book that would confirm them as spies, instead found himself enchanted by the story of the little monkey.
Reasoning that the authors of such an innocent children’s book could not possibly be spies, he released them, and Hans and Margret were able – barely – to escape the Nazi invasion.

The Reys effected a similar narrow escape when a guard boarded the train at the Spanish border, pulled them aside, and demanded to see the contents of their satchel. No doubt expecting to find stolen documents or smuggled contraband, he found the drawings of a delightful little monkey.

“My children would love this,” he said, before permitting them to continue on their way. These events may explain why “being on the run” and “saving the day after a narrow escape from danger” became a template for most the Curious George stories.
Curious George and parents arrive in America

Image result for curious george imagesAfter their fateful escape from Paris and a four-month journey, the couple finally reached New York in October 1940, where they used the rescued drawings of George to establish their profession as artists and so to qualify for an American visa. They became American citizens on April 8, 1946.

The Reys’ American publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was dubious about calling a mischievous male monkey “Fifi,” so the name was changed to George by their editor, Grace Hogarth.
The British objected to a monkey being called George
However, this name, too, became problematic when the book was distributed in Great Britain, where the reigning sovereign was also named George (King George VI).
Since it was deemed unduly irreverent, if not outright disrespectful, to call a fictional monkey by the same name as a sitting British monarch, George became “Zozo” in Britain when the first British edition was published in London (1942).
George's many names all over the world 
It’s interesting to note that George is called by various other names throughout the world, including Coco (Germany), Peter Pedal (Denmark), and Choni Ha-Sakran (Israel).
In the early 1940s, most children’s books were created by women, and the publishers believed that releasing the Curious George books under Hans’s name alone would help promote the books and increase sales. After the striking success of the early Curious George books, however, Margret’s name was added and the books began publication under both their names.
George's Jewish nature

While there is no literal Jewish content in the Reys’ work, Jewish significance may nevertheless be found in the Curious George stories.
George strives and ultimately prevails against adversity, much as the Reys struggle and ultimately triumph against the Nazis.
Image result for curious george imagesThe Man with the Yellow Hat, who remains mysterious and anonymous, turns George into a refugee when he violently removes George from his home in the African Jungle, where he had spent his days happily swinging on vines with the other monkeys and eating bananas.

But George survives being captured, trapped in a brown sack, and being exiled from his home in Africa, and he ultimately adapts to his new country and his new life.
He becomes fully integrated into the great American “melting pot” as he takes a job, goes to Hollywood, visits the circus, goes to the hospital, and even becomes the first animal in space, beating Laika – the Russian cosmonaut dog who blasted off into space on Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957 – by mere weeks.

Similarly, Hans and Margret were refugees from the Nazis who adapted to their new lives as American citizens.
According to some commentators, the yellow hat worn by George’s abductor could be a reference to the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear under the Nazi regime.
Additionally, in the original Curious George book, the Man with the Yellow Hat helps George get all his identification papers in order, in contrast to the Reys’ struggle to secure the necessary papers to leave France.

Thus, the great poignancy and irony of the Curious George stories is that while its creators crafted a child’s fictional world of hopefulness, innocence, and resolute cheerfulness, readers did not know that the true underlying story is one of a dramatic escape from the Nazis during the Holocaust and a tale of Jewish survival.
George's many adventures become famous

George remains one of the most beloved and recognized characters in all of children’s literature.
The first Curious George book, published in 1941, has been translated into more than fourteen languages, including Yiddish and Hebrew, and in 2007 a rare first edition of that book sold at auction for $21,850.

The original seven George books by Hans and Margret, together with the 28 sequels Margret wrote with the late Alan J. Shalleck after Hans’s death, have sold about 30 million copies.

George has also been featured in a Public Service campaign in conjunction with the Ad Council and the Library of Congress; was inducted into the Indie Choice Book Awards Picture Book Hall of Fame; and has starred in an Emmy-Award winning PBS television series and in at least three full-length films.

Image result for curious george imagesIn all, the Reys authored and illustrated more than 30 books, most of them for children, which have never been out of print for 70 years and have sold over 30 million copies.
Whiteblack the Penguin Sees the World wasn’t published until 2000, when the manuscript was rediscovered in the Rey archives and published posthumously.
The authors also wrote books advocating for ethnic harmony

Though the Reys are best known for Curious George, they also published many other stories, including a few that were well ahead of their time in addressing racial matters and advocating for ethnic harmony, which undoubtedly grew out of their own Holocaust experience.

For example, in Zebrology (1937), an adult book, the Reys humorously trace the evolution of the zebra from both white and black horses. Arguing that people can be different and still live together in harmony, the book humorously ponders: “Is the zebra white with black stripes, or black with white stripes?”

Similarly, the Reys address the issue of discrimination in Spotty (1945), the story of a rabbit snubbed by friends and family because of his unusual spotted fur. The book, which was praised by the Anti-Defamation League, was translated into German as a teaching tool for the “re-education” program in Germany instituted by the U.S. Army after World War II.

Hans also combined his interests in stargazing and drawing in two books about astronomy: The Stars: A New Way to See Them (1952), written for adults, and Find the Constellations (1954), a children’s version.
Other children’s books by the Reys include Don’t Frighten the Lion (1942), in which a resourceful poodle in girls’ clothes tours the zoo, and Elizabite – The Adventures of a Carnivorous Plant (1942), in which all attempts to prevent the hungry plant from filling his stomach’s desires fail.
George was truly the Reys' baby
Though the Reys never had any children of their own, they became widely known as “the parents of Curious George.”
Margret used to tell of the time she and Hans met a little boy who stared at them with keen disappointment and said, “I thought you were monkeys, too.”

Margret, who always loved children and animals, established the Curious George Foundation (1989), which funds educational programs for creative – and curious! – children and also supports organizations devoted to the prevention of cruelty to animals and to their preservation.

Image result for curious george imagesMargret visited Israel in 1977 and some time before her death in 1996 wistfully said, “I didn’t do enough for Jews.”
However, through her Foundation, she was a major supporter of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and she bequeathed $2.5 million to Jewish charities, including a significant contribution to the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.

George goes to the Hospital

Here is an extremely rare original signed ink drawing of an American icon and the world’s most beloved little monkey: H.A. Rey depicts Curious George dancing with a bouquet of flowers in his hand.

The sketch, on the verso of the front free endpaper of Curious George Goes to the Hospital is inscribed “For Nora/ with love from the Reys (and leave it at the Hospital, for other patients, if you want to.) / May 1971.”

Curious George Goes to the Hospital (1966) was H.A. Rey’s final story before his death.
The story differed from the previous books in its attempt to be both educational and entertaining. George comes down with stomach pains after swallowing a puzzle piece and, taken to the children’s ward at the hospital, he meets other young children who also need medical attention. He decides to explore the hospital and, as usual, causes a commotion due to his curiosity.

Hans and Margret Rey collaborated with the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Boston to familiarize children with hospitals, their procedures, and the people who work in them.
By presenting the hospital in a story with a comforting and familiar character like George, they hoped to ease some of the anxiety a child entering a hospital might have.

Margret later commented that “to my surprise, nobody in any country ever objected to the fact that a monkey . . . goes through the whole hospital routine.”

About the Author: Saul Jay Singer, a nationally recognized legal ethicist, serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar. He is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters, and his column appears in The Jewish Press every other week. Mr. Singer welcomes comments at


Further references

H.A. Rey - Wikipedia

Margret Rey - Wikipedia

Fleeing Hitler - France 1940 -  A book review


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